The best herbs are the ones close at hand
Chances are, your environment is rich in plants. There are wild and hidden ones—rare and precious—and often these are the most famous. But there are the common (yet still untamed) weedy ones too. They fill the fields, peek out from under the hedges, weave between the garden plants and grace the roadside verges. Because they are so easy to find, and also because they seem to enjoy the human footprint, I lean towards these more common herbs, and it is a joy to get to know them wherever my travels take me.
When spring hits North America, a team of herbalists and I travel to East Africa along with physicians and medical students. Here, we work at a rural hospital, where herbal medicine is becoming integrated into patient care on the wards. But we never bring our familiar plants from home, relying instead on what grows close by and the wisdom of the local tradition. There are many reasons for this, which I will leave for you to ponder, but as always, we turn to the common and weedy for simple, effective herbal therapy. In this age when it seems the high-tech, refined, isolated, and glamorous herbal extract is the remedy of choice, I am heartened to see how the basics—preparations like the humble ginger compress—are so often the best choice. What follows is a sample of this principle in action.1
Between the corn, or on the border of fields where the acacia trees begin, you find a small but vigorous mallow—Malva pusilla, pictured above—with tiny white flowers and broad scalloped leaves. You can usually find some kind of mallow wherever you go, and all have roots that are rich in soothing mucilage. To extract this medicinal “slime,” we dig and wash the roots. Next, using a vegetable grater, we prepare a pulp and mix this with about twice the volume of cold water. This will feel slippery already, but to get the best results we cover this preparation and let it sit overnight. In the morning, we strain the liquid through cheesecloth and squeeze out everything. What results is a rich, demulcent preparation that can be applied topically or taken by mouth, a big spoonful at a time. Wherever it’s applied, this mallow root mucilage soothes dryness and brings vital moisture—welcome relief here in the hospital, but useful everywhere.
Much of the water around here is contaminated by the animals that daily walk through the streams and rivers. But where the water is clear, flowing right out of the ground, you will find a small but powerful plant: Spilanthes mauritania, the native spilanthes, only grows where the water is good. We harvest the flowers daily for their powerful tingle (similar to that of strong Echinacea roots) and patients chew them for the refreshing effect on the mouth, teeth and throat.
One unique but important plant that grows, bushy and thorny, almost everywhere is Carissa edulis (or C. spinarum.) The flowers have an incredible, jasmine-like scent. The berries are edible and delicious. The leaves and roots are rich in salicylates—the same constituents we find in willow bark and meadowsweet. As such, they help resolve the normal inflammation that follows exercise and exertion – a common complaint around here, where folks work their bodies very hard. We harvest the roots with a digging stick, and separate the root bark from the woody core. The traditional preparation is a warm tea, made by simmering the root bark into a decoction for 10-15 minutes. This makes a mild beverage, with a faint camphorous aroma, which we dispense twice daily.
Warm compresses are incredible. They are so simple—just hot water on a piece of clean cloth, used to support healthy circulation to the tissue—and replacing water with herbal tea is one of the first tricks we learn in herb school. Many plants are applicable in this context, most famously ginger, but you can use cayenne, wintergreen, birch bark or willow, too. We have turned to Datura stramonium, known as “jimson weed” in the US, because it contains powerful alkaloids of the tropane class. As a result, this plant should be approached with an abundance of caution, but the leaves (one of the gentlest parts) have the ability to support normal pain signaling to the brain. Combined with hot water, these leaves yield a useful topical application.
Another tried-and-true herbal preparation is the steam. The basic principle is simple: steep herbs in hot water just off the boil, and breathe in the vapors while covering your head with a cloth to capture all the steam. You can use plants like thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary, or pine—all the aromatics are helpful. But around here, where old, towering Eucalyptus trees (a species introduced by English colonists) are widespread by the riverside, we use these leaves to make steams for hospital patients. These are stripped from the branches, crushed, and mixed with boiling water in a thermos which keeps the steam hot for a long time. Pour some liquid into a bowl and breathe deeply, two or three times a day, to keep lungs clear and support normal, deep breathing.
The effects of stress and occasional nervous tension are part of our lives no matter where we live. Aromatic and adaptogenic plants are some of the best choices to support good mood and counter the stress of the day. We are lucky here that two of the best grow abundantly, feral and free. One is tulsi, or holy basil (Ocimum sanctum): the flowers and leaves are rich in trichomes full of aromatic volatile oils that support a healthy mood and counteract simple nervous tension. We will harvest these, and dry them for a day or two to concentrate the aromatic constituents. Then, we prepare a lovely tea with hints of clove, mint and spice to offer to patients who want a little extra support. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a more rugged plant, and here it grows into bushes over four feet tall. The fruits mature into a small, red husk cherry, but we harvest the root, chop it fresh, and boil it in water or milk to support vitality and energy, counteract occasional fatigue and relieve occasional sleeplessness, and deliver adaptogenic power. It turns out, of course, that ashwagandha and tulsi make a great combination: simmer the roots first, then strain and use the decoction to infuse a handful of tulsi leaves. A unique, nutty, aromatic blend awaits.
Tulsi is far from the only aromatic plant here. Others, less indicated for internal use, nevertheless make great teas to use as topical preparations for keeping the skin clean and fresh. The wonderful smell of herbs like Lippia citriodora is a useful feature, too: the Maasai who live here will use them as perfumes and deodorants. But our main use for these botanicals is as a topical wash: if you are out in the forest or field camping or hiking, it is good to know your aromatic plants in case you need them.
All across the world, herbal medicine provides the tools for gentle but powerful preparations. I firmly believe that, while there are some unique plants found only in special corners of the globe, you can accomplish most of the herbalist’s tasks using what grows close to home. If you do a little digging, you can find plant people in your travels, too—and if approached with respect and reciprocity, they can help you learn about the local medicine (plant people everywhere are kind and generous folk). This traditional knowledge is under threat in the modern world, so in our travels, we can ask if local healers would appreciate assistance in documenting what they know (always using informed consent and correct attribution; visit the World Intellectual Property Organization2 for more information). In so doing, we will become flexible, adaptable herbalists skilled in working with what it close at hand, while helping to protect ancestral wisdom from the perils that confront it in the industrial age.
1. I am grateful to Niclous and Mangoye Rotiken, Sangau Swekei, Kiaro Tendeu Olioruko, Sandulai Saingeu, Clinton Kairung’ Mshao, and the herbalist members of the Wasso Phytotherapy Project for their assistance in bridging the gap between traditional medicine and modern hospital care, and for teaching me about the local plants.